Düsum Khyenpa, 1st Karmapa Lama

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Düsum Khyenpa (Tibetan: དུས་གསུམ་མཁྱེན་པ་Wylie: dus gsum mkhyen pa) (1110–1193) was the 1st Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu (ka rma bka’ brgyud) school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Düsum Khyenpa literally means "Knower of the Three times" (or past, present and future). It was given to him to refer to knowledge of the three forms of time he gained at enlightenment including the "timeless time" of enlightened awareness.[1]


Düsum Khyenpa was born to a devout family of Buddhist practitioners in Teshö in Kham and was called Gephel as a child. He first studied with his father and then continued training with other Buddhist teachers in the region.[2]

He was a gifted child who studied and practiced Buddhism intently from an early age. Already quite learned by the age of twenty, he became a monk and studied the sutras and tantra intensively for a further ten years. At thirty, he went to Daklha Gampo -- Gampopa's monastery—to receive teachings from him. Although this was a historic meeting of two great Buddhist bodhisattvas emanating on Earth with a profound purpose, Gampopa nevertheless first made Dusum Khyenpa train formally in the foundation practices of the Kadam tradition and, following that, in the general philosophy of the sutras.

This set a fine example for all future Kagyu followers and showed the need for the correct basis of knowledge even when—especially when—one does the most powerful of Vajrayana practices.

The first Karmapa received empowerments and instruction in the Hevajra tantra and spent four years in strict retreat, training in the peaceful stability (shamatha) and profound insight (vipaśyanā) aspects of meditation. He then received the full transmission of the inner instructions of the Kagyu tradition. In nine days he absorbed what Naropa had received over 12 years from Tilopa. Rechungpa, the "moon-like" disciple of Milarepa, also instructed him, principally in the Six Yogas of Naropa. His attainment in one of these -- tummo, inner-heat—was particularly boosted by his own natural compassion and produced rapid results. Following his teacher's instruction he then went away to meditate.

Gampopa eventually died and Dusum Khyenpa returned to Daklha Gampo to honor his remains. He had a powerful vision of his teacher and knew that it was time to implement one of his final instructions: to go to the place where he would achieve enlightenment—Kampo Kangra—and there to practice mahamudra. He promised that he would live until the age of 84, in order to benefit the Dharma. He achieved enlightenment at the age of fifty, while practicing dream yoga. He had a vision at that time of the celestial beings (dakinis) offering him a vajra crown woven from their hair. His name—Dusum Khyenpa—means 'Knower of the Past, Present and Future', referring to the total lucidity he attained at enlightenment, giving him knowledge of the three modes of time, and the 'timeless time' of enlightened awareness.

From then onwards his teaching activity was intense. At the age of 58 he founded a monastery at Kampo Nenang. He later established an important seat at Karma Gon in eastern Tibet and, at the age of 74, another seat at Tsurphu in central Tibet, in the valley of the Tolung, which feeds into the Brahmaputra. It is interesting to note, in the light of the 16th Karmapa's prediction letter, that the abbot of the Buddhist monastery at Bodh Gaya, in India, the place of the Buddha's enlightenment, sent a conch shell to Dusum Khyenpa at Tsurphu, as a token of the latter's significance for buddhadharma. This conch shell symbolism is found in many stories of the sixteen Karmapas.

The first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, made predictions about future Karmapas. In particular, he was the first Karmapa to present a prediction letter detailing his future incarnation. He gave it to his main disciple, Drogon Rechen, predecessor of the Tai Situpa line (they were only called Tai Situ after this title was conferred by the Chinese emperor in the early 15th century). He died at the age of 84, as predicted. His heart was found intact in the funeral pyre and some of his remaining bones bore self manifesting symbols or simulacra of Buddhas. (The similarities with the passing of the 16th Karmapa are remarkable.) Among his other main disciples were Tak-lungpa, founder of the Ta-lung Kagyu, Tsangpa Gyare, founder of the Drukpa Kagyu (now widespread in Bhutan) and Lama Khadampa Deshek,[3] founder of the Katok Nyingma lineage.

The forefathers in the Kagyu lineage are known as the "Golden Rosary." The lineage of the Kagyu emphasizes the continuity of oral instructions passed on from master to student.[4] The principal student who held the lineage of the Golden Rosary from the First Karmapa was Drogon Rechen.[5]

An ink and gouache drawing of Düsum Khyenpa [1] was found in a statue of the Buddha and is in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. (2003). "Brief Histories of the Sixteen Karmapas". In: Music in the Sky: The Life, Art & Teachings of the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje. Snow Lion Publications, U.S.A. First Indian Reprint: New Age Books, New Delh. (2004), p. 277. ISBN 81-7822-193-4.
  2. ^ Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. (2003). "Brief Histories of the Sixteen Karmapas". In: Music in the Sky: The Life, Art & Teachings of the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje. Snow Lion Publications, U.S.A. First Indian Reprint: New Age Books, New Delh. (2004), p. 277. ISBN 81-7822-193-4.
  3. ^ Katok Dampa Deshek some information by RIGPA SHEDRA
  4. ^ Some information on the Kagyu Lineage and the Golden Rosary
  5. ^ The First Karmapa Düsum Khyenpa (1110 - 1193) kagyuoffice


Note: This text is based on the abstract from Ken Holmes book Karmapa on the web site [2] used with the author's permission. Other sources are indicated by footnotes.

  • Ken Holmes, Karmapa, Altea Publishing 1995, ISBN 0-9524555-4-4. Author's website
  • Thinley, Karma (2008). The History of Sixteen Karmapas of Tibet (in English). USA: Prajna Press. p. 150. ISBN 1-57062-644-8. 
  • Lama Kunsang, Lama Pemo, Marie Aubèle (2012). History of the Karmapas: The Odyssey of the Tibetan Masters with the Black Crown. Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York. ISBN 1-55939-390-4.
  • First Karmapa: The Life and Teachings of Dusum Khyenpa (2012), Translated by Michele Martin & David Karma Choepel, KTD Publications, New York. ISBN 978-1-934608-32-6.

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Gampopa (spiritual predecessor)
Reincarnation of the Karmapa Succeeded by
Karma Pakshi